Naturally, we all have to take some time off from training or miss a day here
and there because of life now and then - whether because of work, holiday travel, sickness, or even injury - but that's okay! The barbell is excited for your return. Often, many returning lifters discover new challenges in the wake of their re-entrance to training like low conditioning, lower training numbers, and feeling generally like they're starting over - and feeling this "decrease" in what was done prior can be defeating.
Our behavioral psychology is rooted in 4 groups of behavioral patterns (optimism, pessimism, trust, and envy) which often places our mindset into unrealistic comparative outcomes highlighted as "good" or "bad" but these subjective outcomes are not truly black or white. This is why disciplined training and reframing your view of training/results into a growth based system rather than a reward based fixed system will yield you significantly more progress over the long term. In fact, in just 8 to 12 weeks you can get back to your best numbers after a 2 month break and a healthy mindset can take you even further than your best numbers. Realistically, if you miss a day here or there every couple of months then it's not going to set you back as far as you'd think (don't get me wrong though, inconsistent training patters will just leave you spinning your wheels in the mud - consistent training is the key to gains!). Here's some tools to help you get back to the bar after some time off!
Growth Mindset & Psychology
Everyone hears about growth mindsets usually in motivational videos and quotes but rarely I think is it actually described. So here's one definition from the Understood website: "A growth mindset describes a way of viewing challenges and setbacks. People who have a growth mindset believe that even if they struggle with certain skills, their abilities aren’t set in stone. They think that with work, their skills can improve over time." The opposite of a growth mindset is called a "Fixed Mindset." By definition the fixed mentality is one of "seeing qualities as fixed traits that cannot change." For a lifter, the fixed mindset would show symptoms through verbiage like "I'm so bad at this" and "I can't lift that weight." I'm sure you can see these opposing mindsets are rooted in positivity vs. negativity and how one would lead to more progress over the other. These mindsets are not black and white either, however, and instead function across a spectrum in themselves and may also be activity dependent or outlook focused. For example, someone may be very confident and have a more growth-based mindset when they Clean & Jerk but in their Snatch they might be fixed in their self belief of what they're capable of - or perhaps a Powerlifter is stuck in their bench press and believes that's just how they're built but they very much have a growth mindset in their sumo deadlift where they follow RPE and are unaffected by rough deadlift training days.
So how can we build a growth mindset in training? Consistent training and made reps. Especially for someone coming back to lifting after time off, the bar needs to mentally be set low with a focus on high quality movement - which should 100% of the time be formed when learning to lift. Unfortunately though, many are motivation/fixed focused and think they need to hurry and max out with no real reason other than that day's excitement. Instead, learning how training feelings fluctuate from day to day while collecting win after win in training through continuously made reps that don't "decide the day" will yield huge outcomes when PR days come around and if things don't line up just right usually a lifter with a growth mindset can easily shake it off knowing it just wasn't the right day - meanwhile the same scenario for a fixed mindset lifter may lead to contemplating quitting and thinking that they're incapable of improving their training.... even if they've only lifted for less than a year or two...
Learning is a tremendous important part of becoming great at anything which takes trial and error. When we learned how to walk as babies and toddlers, imagine if the first time or even 50th time we failed we had stopped. What if the first time you drove your car and slammed on the brakes abruptly you stopped? What if the first time you played your favorite video game and your character died you just threw down the controller and quit? You wouldn't make much progress. The same is true for lifting weight. It NEVER gets easier if you're trying to improve because as the weight gets heavier your mindset will have to evolve across every detail of training, your recovery will inevitably have to evolve outside of training, your attention to detail in following your training plan will have to evolve and improve - and you'll need to understand deeper and deeper the intent and reason why you're doing what you're doing. We learn through failures, not successes. Always. Getting stronger and faster comes from the weights you do between 0-85% of your max. Weights above 90% are just an expression of the accumulation of work you've done. Notice I didn't say 100%. We all hit 100-105% on the right set up days where we've acquired consistency across time and gone through volume phases, intensity phases, and have earned the right to go through an arduous peaking process to maximize force expression at the end of that peak. Maxing out randomly feeds a fixed mindset by tricking us with that we should be able to hit that weight on any given day. Following a consistent pattern of development (programming), aims to mathematically align qualities so that efficiency and strength can align on the right day with planned maximized outcomes.
So why is this important info for someone returning to training? It's the perfect chance to lay the ground work of no expectations. Know that with time the strength will come ba, the technique will come back, and you're in this for the long haul for fun. This doesn't mean you're not supposed to try, you should give it your all but with no expectations. Always be in the hunt for more, staying hungry. Always knowing that your best days are yet to come. It may take a few weeks to have heavier weight on the bar and that's okay! It will get heavy if you continue to push and lock tight on the plan!
Don't Be in a Rush and Enjoy the Journey
Nothing worth having in this life comes easily. Getting good at Powerlifting or Weightlifting takes a hell of a long time, year and years and years. Some folks have a head start from doing sports and strength training for years before bridging right into the sport. Coming back to the bar after time off, aim to feel good and gradually get your movement back. Strength is a time sport and should be treated that way. That doesn't mean you should aim to coast, but you should absolutely learn how to maximize every rep you do through speed. Combined with time and appropriate volume/intensity exposure, you will get stronger and more technical. Enjoy the journey because there is no weight where you'll reach it and one day go "aha I did it and now I'm happy." Similar to life and the meaning of happiness, the journey is the happiness. And if you're looking through the life lens thinking you need to be in a different place to be happy, then you're looking in all the wrong places. Happiness is in you and where you are. Enjoy the journey fam, this life is too short to live unhappily. Push hard and enjoy the experience. There's nothing more relatable than starting and building meaning in your journey.
Made reps lead to more made reps. Missed reps lead to missed reps. While you're bridging back into training, keep the weight light and focus on making reps. Set yourself up with future success by having achievable training days set up. It also helps to squeeze in definitive checkmarks such as achievable rep maxes at less than "all out" effort. An example would be taking a 5RM push press PR just one kilo above your previous 5RM PR or an 8RM that you've never set before with a bit of room in the tank to set up more future successes. In doing so, when it comes to truly maxing out a lift you'll have built out a robust continuity of repeated high quality results. And where you are when you've started back to training can be a new baseline for EVERYTHING. Typically folks will create a new frame of reference and classifications of development if maybe they had a highly successful 4 year stint of training but took 2 years off and are back to the bar again. In this example, defining current PRs vs. All Time PRs are valuable for generating repeated successes by creating recognition of current development/staying present with training. In contrast, imagine comparing yourself after one week back to the bar to your all time best lifts - probably not the best way to generate continuity and results if you're comparing to your best ever. Remember though, the key is add up made reps over time - incrementally heavier and heavier weights is absolutely great but truly confidence and overall ability adds up with consistency. So consistently made reps is going to add up to much more than setting yourself up for hit or miss days.
Realism & Overperforming
Understanding and recognizing where you currently are in your abilities is very difficult to do because we only know what we know. This is a huge benefit of having a coach to guide you to the next step of every bit of the way. Those steps can often be very hard to see by ourselves aside from knowing you need to get stronger and knowing that added kilos generally means progress. But having a realistic view of where you are and what you are currently able to accomplish alongside knowing what is accomplishable over any amount of time is a huge key to knowing what you need - often meaning strength vs. technique. But it's not as simple as strength or technique, deciphering where volume and intensity is allotted between the many different options of exercise selection, sets/reps, and accumulative training volume and intensity over time can be difficult - especially in clear acknowledgement of what you need to improve your weaknesses while continuing to hone and develop your strengths. Taking a step back and acknowledging where you are underdeveloped is a major key to success if you can attack the weak point and turn it into a strength. After time off, this will most likely be qualities within conditioning first (both systemic and localized) - but fortunately it should be clear that you should gradually accumulate volume for a duration of time before exposing yourself to higher intensities to keep aches and pains low and maximize progress once your return block phases into a more intensity focused block of training.
Realistic goals can be tough to decipher but generalities can be assumed depending on length of time taken off. Generally, if someone has lifted at a high level for years but took a week off then strength won't be affected too much, two weeks off then they'll likely be slightly weaker in their maxes but can return back to their normal estimated maxes within two weeks but that first and second week should mostly be geared toward returning specific conditioning and volume development before re-engaging with training where they were prior. Three to four weeks off will probably mean it takes a month or so to get back to their top numbers, and this is where individuals will need to re-enter a dedicated volume phase to best transfer to fastest development. Two months off is generally about the same length of time to return to near best. But three to six months is where the water really does start getting murky in returning to their best numbers and would probably need a full reset/reentry into training. In terms of development, it looks totally different between Powerlifters and Weightlifters. Powerlifters should make steady consistent progress if they are never missing their training. Weightlifters have more pieces to manage so strength progress will be slightly slower as more work has to be dedicated to the comp lifts while also performing squats and pulls and accessories. Progress can highly vary if you miss more than two training sessions per month and are training less than 4 times per week, simply from a monthly total tonnage per main lift perspective. Previously I've given the example of a Powerlifter who deadlifts 4 times in a month (let's say every Wednesday). If they miss one training session per month then they just missed 25% of their deadlift training for the month. It would be easy to stack that training onto the next total body or lower emphasis day but now that training is going to take a hit if it comes after the main lift prescribed or if it goes before squats perhaps then squats will be impacted (not to mention the sudden week spike in volume on top of the other regularly planned deadlift day). This is where realistic expectations suddenly don't make any sense. In a world where we also live outside of training, things like bad sleep, a rough day of nutrition, or stress suddenly greatly impact how we're able to change and disrupt the flow of development. So, ultimately, we should place our expectations at zero but work hard to achieve as much as we can. Again, emphasizing the need for low expectations and finding the enjoyment of the journey/practice of improvement.
Overperforming scenarios can be ways to boost confidence and find little wins that will stack up to long term big gains in performance and is one of the ways our lifters enjoy constant success! Often setting realistically achievable goals that are also "firsts" for a lifter can help see through the blur of % work and recognize where progress is being made. So situations like the 5RM example in the previous section can often set us up for scenarios where can not only achieve success but vastly overperform if we're feeling great with little impact on other lifts. This feels great for the ego (which we all have, there's not denying that), while keeping to the nature of strength sports by getting better at heavy weights, and taking a big win now and then throughout training. When planned correctly amongst the rest of training, these stacked up wins suddenly amount to extraordinary progress come time to push the bigger strength or competition lift and is how consistent lifters can check off new 1RMs. However, it needs to be emphasized that the lifter has to actually be giving training their all to reach these peaks - not just "when you feel like it" or have sudden fleeting inspiration.
Details, Details, and Details
Every Powerlifter and every Weightlifter is honing technique. When you get back to the bar after time off, this is a perfect time to set a new baseline standard of movement and work on areas that you might have needed more attention prior - whether it's exploring movements you haven't tried before, establishing a new mobility routine, trying new nutritional tactics, or experimenting with technique and overall position. Generally if you spent years honing a movement then you hard wired pieces of technique that will come back together within 4 to 6 weeks of consistency so hammering a stronger turnover or developing a stronger overhead position could be a huge step toward annihilating your weak point. Regardless, while the weight is light, you should be able to keep things slower and go all in on establishing new details - an excellent place to establish a new routine or a powerful wide base before the weight gets heavier in the next couple of months. Start reading too! Chances are with time off, you've lost a bit of the details of movement overall and reading up on articles, old books, or watching YouTube videos should help remind you of cues that helped in the past and how things should feel & move.
Slow & steady wins the race if you just keep going. Embrace where you are in the journey, whether it's coming back after time off, 10+ years in of hard consistent work, or you're brand new to training - enjoy it! Strength is a time sport! One day we'll all be lifting the barbell for the last time but we'll look back on those times where we beat gravity at it's own game. Where you place your time is where you place your heart. Hungry dawgs eat. GO FEAST!